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Editor's Blog: A day in the life of a review writer at Pocket Gamer

How we make the tricky decisions

Product: Pocket Gamer | Manufacturer: Steel Media Ltd
Pocket Gamer 3DS, thumbnail 1
Reviewing games can be a very tricky business.

At Pocket Gamer, we very often find ourselves engaged in spirited office debates about the best way to write reviews to ensure they are as timely, useful, honest, and fair as they can be.

It's not always easy, though.

So, in the wake of the epic "Doritosgate" debate - which has put extra scrutiny on the way games journalists act and behave - we thought we'd pull back the curtain a little and explain exactly how we've dealt with two recent game review cases.

Call of Duty: Black Marks

Earlier this week, handheld editor Peter Willington and I were up well past our beddy-bye time, as we scrambled to get Pocket Gamer's review of Call of Duty: Black Ops - Declassified written, edited, and published on the site.

Normally, we'll have a generous lead time before the launch of a game. This gives us a chance to play the title, write about it, and get our review ready to go live as the game hits shops.

But, even on the day of the abovementioned Vita shooter's release, Activision's promised review copy still hadn't shown up on our doorstep. The publisher said it didn't have any download codes for us, either.

It might sound like a Royal Mail mishap, but that's definitely not the case - no website had received a copy of the game.

Tricky business

This is actually just the oldest trick in the book, employed by publishers (and movie studios and TV networks) when they know their product isn't much cop.

If you don't give out review code in time for launch and then string the press along with vague promises that the review copy is on its way, you might be able to squeeze out a few 'sight-unseen' sales before the reviews come in that inevitably slate the game.

So, despite being told to hold on and wait for a review copy, we made the decision to ignore Activision, buy the game on the PlayStation Store, and dedicate an entire day to reviewing it.

In the end, we called Call of Duty: Black Ops - Declassified for Vita "a cynical, half-baked, tired little mess of a game". It's also broken, buggy, and crashed our Vita at one point.

We weren't alone in thinking this way, incidentally - the game's sitting at 29 on Metacritic.

Later that same day, we ran into another problem.

Nintendo offered us a review code for its upcoming Paper Mario: Sticker Star RPG. But, it came with a catch. We weren't allowed to play if we didn't agree to a certain rule.

Reviews were only allowed to mention content that takes place before world 3–4.

Wow. That's a quite a lot of game that we're not allowed to talk about. I've heard of embargoes on specific spoilers and plot points before, but this would mean putting the kibosh on well over half the game.

So, we're allowed to write about the first 15 acts, but not allowed to say a single word about the 23 that come after it? Can we say that the game is too long or too short? Or that it starts to go downhill? What if there's a huge sticking point in world 5, or a game-breaking bug in world 6?

We politely turned down Nintendo's review copy.

Other websites around the world have not, we should point out - there will be reviews for this game that are restricted from saying anything about the latter half of the adventure.

So, we've decided to get one of our US correspondents to just buy the game. It would be easier (and cheaper) to play by Nintendo's rules, but we decided against it.

Reviewing games is a big part of our job, and we spend a lot of time making sure reviews are as useful and as honest as they can be. And it seems like every other week we're forced into a situation where we have to make a tricky decision between doing what's easy or doing what's right.

Earlier in the year, we refused a publisher's offer to let us run a review early if we give the game a 9 or higher. We also broke an embargo that would stop us publishing our negative review for 15 hours. We refused to change a score when a stroppy publisher complained, too.

In the end, we just stick by one simple mantra: By putting your interests first, we know our reviews will be as fair and honest as they can be. Hopefully, we've earned your trust.

Reviewer photo
Mark Brown 15 November 2012
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